China’s Increasing “Soft Power” in Northeast Asia

ISSUE NO. 16 MARCH 31, 2004
Institute for National Policy Research

China’s Increasing “Soft Power” in Northeast Asia

By Dr. Eric Teo Chu Cheow

Historically, China’s cultural and civilizational influence have been the most predominant in its “cultural sphere”, which traditionally included Japan, Korea and Vietnam, as these countries embraced Confucianism and the “Sino culture”.

The Historical Context of the Chinese Empire and Its Tributary System

China maintained an ancient tributary system, which was started under the Ming Dynasty, perfected under the Qing and lasted until the late 19th century, when the decaying Qing Empire finally fell to “outside powers”. In fact, China’s Ming/Qing tributary system was based on three cardinal points, as follows:

- firstly, China considered itself the “central heart” (zhongxin in Mandarin) of the region; this tributary system assured China of its overall security environment.

- secondly, China needed a stable external environment, immediately surrounding the Middle Kingdom, to ensure its own internal stability and prosperity.

- thirdly, the Chinese emperor, at the “heart”, would in principle give more favours to tributary states or kingdoms than receive from them; for his “generosity”, the emperor gets their respect and goodwill.

From the royal Qing archives (and according to a recent publication of the Institute of International Relations of BeiDa or Beijing University), this well-established system laid out a meticulous system of tribute from regional countries to the Chinese court. Korea had to pay tribute once a year, the Ryuku Kingdom (present-day Okinawan islands) once in two years, Annam (Northern Vietnam) once in three years, Siam (Thailand) once in four years, Sulu (in Southern Philippines) once in five years, and Burma (Myanmar) and Laos, once every seven to ten years. The publication even calculated the number of times these kingdoms had effectively paid tribute to Beijing, from 1662 till early 1900s; it also listed some of the tributes paid, like elephant tasks (ivory) from Siam or precious stones from Burma.

It is to be noted that Korea, under the Chosun Dynasty, was China’s foremost tributary state, as its relations were the most intimate with and subservient to Beijing and the Chinese Empire. Chinese writing, culture and social mores (in a tight conservative Confucianist order) were copied directly from China and strictly regulated in the Korean society then. Moreover, in the Korean psyche of that time, Beijing was considered the “big brother” capital, as all records or films of that period “glamourized” Beijing as the most sophisticated cultural and civilizational centre in the Korean world, akin to Paris in the last century or New York in this century. On the other hand, the Korean “vassal state” (of the Chinese emperors) was perceived as the Middle Kingdom’s most loyal ally and cultural soul mate, a profound difference for Japan vis-à-vis China.

Rising Chinese Influence in Japan : The Economic & Strategic Dilemma & Imperatives

Historically, this well-established tributary system underscored the centrality of the Chinese emperor and its empire to the whole Asian region; cultural affinities have been strong and deep-rooted, especially with Northeast Asia. Japan was historically “linked” to the system, whereas Korea was an integral part of it. In reality, Beijing’s present relations with Tokyo, Seoul and Pyongyang could be traced to this historical legacy.

In fact, it was Japan, which was the first indigenous Asian power to “upset” the Chinese tributary system, by “annexing” the Ryukus in 1879 and then defeating a weakening China in 1895, thereby forcing Beijing to “grant” independence to its vassal-state Korea. (As a subsequent humiliation to Beijing, Japan then invaded and occupied the “independent” Korea 15 years later in 1910.) These were the first challenge by an Asian country to the “central heart” in Beijing, and the first tussle between the Northern and Eastern Cities (as Beijing and Tokyo are respectively written in Chinese script) for Asian leadership and supremacy. This tussle subsided, as the Chinese empire declined and was “carved” out subsequently by Western powers (and Japan) in the later half of the 20th century. Today, the rise of China has serious implications for Tokyo, as the former makes a political comeback to “reverse history”, thus heightening Sino-Japanese rivalry in the region. China’s firm decision not to allow Japanese PM Junichiro Koizumi to visit Beijing until he renounces his visits to Yasukuni Shrine is an ominous reminder of this historical legacy; the Japanese leader is even denied the honour of “paying tribute” to Beijing till he effectively kowtows to China over Yasukuni.

But interestingly Japan may be coming to terms with its history and geography, thus acknowledging China’s role and influence in East Asia out of economic common sense. As Japan’s economic recovery takes off, thanks to a massive wave of Japanese exports to China (which now accounts for almost half of its exports and GDP growth), Tokyo is torn between economic perceptions of China’s threat and opportunity. In fact, Japan chalked up in February 2004 its first trade surplus with China, the first time since Mar 1994; this trade surplus with Beijing was US$5.6 billion. Even more spectacular in Japan’s export-led recovery was the fact that its overall trade surplus in February 2004 was US$13.25 billion (primarily with Asian countries) and China accounted for more than 42% of it. This dependence-cum-rivalry between Tokyo and Beijing is confirmed by Japanese business’ necessary thrust into China to seek cheaper production bases, large consumer markets and the rising level of technological research, which the Chinese offer; the Japanese government is thus discreetly applauding this re-location. Back home, Chinese cuisine is “in”, just as more Japanese youngsters flock to learn Mandarin in Chinese universities. Chinese “soft power” has definitely increased in Japan, as fascination for “things Chinese” grows, just as China’s economic power and market rise for Japanese business.

Furthermore, the Japanese know that Asian trade-cum-investment-led regionalism will provide Japan and East Asia the necessary impetus towards future economic integration, and China is key to this budding regionalism. Economically, Japan is currently riding the Chinese wave, although two political obstacles to economic regionalism still need to be “normalized” before East Asian regionalism could effectively take off, viz. troubled Sino-Japanese relations (based on past and present animosities), as well as East Asian countries’ divergent relations with Washington (Japan being in the fore-front of this divergence). Japan is in a dilemma, especially with the immense opportunity that China offers to Japanese business, production and investments.

In December 2003, Tokyo hosted the historic ASEAN-Japan Summit, where all ten ASEAN Heads of State and Government met with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to reaffirm sound and solid relations between Southeast Asia and Japan; Koizumi then signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN, two months after China had signed it at the post-ASEAN Summit in Bali. Japan also agreed to begin negotiations in 2003 with ASEAN on bilateral economic partnership agreements, one year after China agreed to the ASEAN-China FTA in 2002. Buoyed with an economic recovery and for geo-strategic reasons, Japan began official negotiations with Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines for FTAs, after the one concluded with Singapore a year ago. ASEAN has in reality become the competition arena between Japan and China, as Tokyo “competes” with Beijing for goodwill and influence in Southeast Asia.

Finally, on the strategic front, besides a growing controversy over Tokyo’s support for Washington in Iraq, Koizumi’s greatest challenge is to contend with a rising China on its immediate flank. The greatest geo-political challenge for Japan, in the midst of its largest on-going economic, financial, social and political revolution in decades, is to work out a new entente with China and resolve outstanding bilateral issues, ranging from the Senkaku Islands dispute to war reparations. The Taiwanese and North Korean issues could “add more fuel to fire”, just as the Theatre Missile Defence (TMD), initiated by Washington, could prove as controversial to China as to Japan. China thus continues to represent, for Japan, both an economic opportunity and a threat, as well as a formidable geo-political and security “challenge”. But China may also represent a silver lining to Japan; their traditional rivalry may in fact present Japan with its best opportunity and impetus to put aside its domestic squabbles in order to strengthen itself and “lead” Asia economically and financially again. Japan’s ultimate challenge appears to be to take on the “China challenge” from without in order to “re-vitalize itself from within”!

Rising Chinese “Soft Power” in South Korea : The Economic & Strategic Necessity

Just as Japan’s “China dilemma” is a toss-up between economic and security/strategic imperatives, China represents an economic and strategic necessity for South Korea, but not necessarily on the same grounds. (In North Korea, China’s “soft power” has been till recently the dwindling communist influence, as Pyongyang “closed” its society and economy after 1953; whatever earlier Confucianist and cultural roots from China were subsumed under the mantle of the communist ideology then.)

Firstly, South Korean politics has become tumultuous and uncertain, which underscores the utmost need for stability on the Korean Peninsula; China appears today to be the best regional and international actor, which could offer this “necessity”, if not, from a historical perspective. The “care-taker” government in Seoul, after President Roh Moon Hyun’s unprecedented impeachment, would constitute a real test for South Korean democracy some four weeks ahead of legislative polls at such a crucial time as the “six-party talks”. Seoul knows that Beijing would be the best mediator to get the North moving and thus look to China to “provide” this intra-Korean stability, as it was the case till 1895. Furthermore, aggressive American policies worldwide is alienating a widening cross-section of South Koreans, who appear to be rejecting American culture and imperialism, and switching to Chinese instead, out of realpolitik considerations. In future, if South Koreans have to choose between Washington and Beijing, it is no longer a given that they would automatically back the Americans, as has been the case.

Secondly, the economic factor is binding South Korea to China more intrinsically than ever. Major Korean corporations have invested heavily in China over the past five years. LG, Hyundai, Samsung and YBS all have huge investments and production plants in Nanjing or Qingdao and are thriving there. In 2003, South Korean companies invested US$4.4 billion into China, versus US$4,2 billion by US companies. Exports to China hit US$47.5 billion versus US$36.7 billion to the US; the South Korean trade surplus with China last year amounted to US$13 billion. China has indeed emerged as the biggest importer of South Korean products, its largest investment destination and its biggest tourist destination. But China may also appear as a threat to Korean workers, who see jobs shifting to China, thanks to Korean MNCs shifting production bases and even R&D facilities there. This mix of opportunity-cum-threat of China in South Korean economic and social psyche would probably grow, as Korea’s “China challenge” grows.

Lastly, Chinese culture and “soft power” are rising as well, as Koreans look back to their common Confucianist and Buddhist roots, which are being revived, as portrayed by recent Korean films. There is also a resurgence of interest for Chinese language and culture as young Koreans flock to China to study. The prestigious Seoul National University announced that since December 2003, Chinese had already replaced English as the most popular major among liberal arts students. 35,000 South Korean students now study in China, constituting the largest group of foreign students there; furthermore, the number of students taking entrance exams to enter Chinese universities has increased threefold since 2000, whereas student visa application to the US dropped 10% on the last year. Moreover, South Koreans do not have the same cultural “hang-ups” against the Chinese as they had against Japanese culture, thanks to the harsh Japanese occupation of Korea for some 35 years. In fact, psychologically, Korean-Chinese rapprochement should be much easier than Korean-Japanese or Sino-Japanese rapprochement.

China is thus increasingly “dominating” both the Japanese and South Korean psyche, just as China’s economic, political, cultural and strategic role and place become more determinant in the region. Chinese “soft power” could ultimately challenge American “soft power” in the two key allies of the United States in Northeast Asia.

Dr Eric Teo Chu Cheow, a business consultant and strategist, is Council Secretary of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs (SIIA).


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